Sunday, 20 October 2013

Hanoi/Paris 1968: MM on the Front Lines

North Vietnam: The Countrysidecover

Go out into the field,” American officials last year, in blustery hectoring tones, were telling newcomers to Saigon, meaning get close to the fighting if you want to “connect” with the war. In North Vietnam, officials do not stipulate a tour of the combat zones as a condition for climbing aboard, “turning on,” or, as they would express it, “participating in the struggle of the Vietnamese people.” Indeed, if I had wanted to be taken to the 17th parallel, they would surely have said no: too long and dangerous a trip for a fleeting guest of the Peace Committee. And too uncertain, given the uneven pace of travel by night, in convoy, to plan ahead for suitable lodging, meals, entertainment. A reporter on the road can trust to pot-luck and his interpreter, but for guests hospitality requires that everything be arranged in advance, on the province and district, even the hamlet level, with the local delegates and representatives—stage-managed, a hostile critic would say, though, if so, why the distinction between guests and correspondents? Anyway, that is how it is, and I do not feel it as a deprivation that I failed to see the front lines. The meaning of a war, if it has one, ought to be discernible in the rear, where the values being defended are situated; at the front, war itself appears senseless, a confused butchery that only the gods can understand; at least that is how Homer and Tolstoy saw the picture, in close-up, though the North Vietnamese film studios certainly would not agree.
Nevertheless, it was a good idea—and encouraged by Hanoi officials—to get out of Hanoi and go, not into the field but into the fields. In the countryside, you see the lyrical aspect of the struggle, i.e., its revolutionary content. All revolutions have their lyrical phase (Castro with his men in an open boat embarking on the high seas), often confined to the overture, the first glorious days. This lyricism, which is pulsing in Paris today as I write, the red and black flags flying on the Sorbonne, where the revolting students have proclaimed a States General, is always tuned to a sudden hope of transformation—something everybody would like to do privately, be reborn, although most shrink from the baptism of fire entailed. Here in France the purifying revolution, which may be only a rebellion, is still in the stage of hymns to liberty, socialist oratory, mass chanting, while the majority looks on with a mixture of curiosity and tolerance. But in rural North Vietnam, under the stimulus of the US bombing, a vast metamorphosis, or, as the French students would say, re-structuring, is taking place not as a figure of speech but literally. Mountains, up to now, have not been moved, but deep caverns in them have been transformed into factories. Universities, schools, hospitals, whole towns have been picked up and transferred from their former sites, dispersed by stealth into the fields; streams have changed their courses …

New York

June 13, 1968

Dearest Mary

I wanted to write yesterday just after reading the third instalment of the Hanoi book. I rarely saw Heinrich so enthusiastic. I love it enormously. This still and beautiful pastoral of yours has the effect of  showing the whole monstrosity of our enterprise in a harsher light than any denunciation or description of horror could. It is beautifully written, one of the very finest, most marvellous things you have ever done...

I miss you. There are many things - also political things - which I wished we could talk about...Things, of course, look pretty bleak. Do you happen to know Dani Cohn- Benditt (sic)? He happens to be the son of very close friends of ours and I wish I knew a way of contacting him. I know him, though not well...I just want him to know that the old Paris friends...are very willing to help if he needs it.

Much, much love


Die Welt: What did Hannah Arendt mean to you, when you were still a real, radical leftist 68er? 

Daniel Cohn-Bendit: That's complicated, because she was a friend of my parents. I knew her and was aware of her theses as a child. After emigrating in 1934, she belonged to a group of intellectuals in Paris along with my parents, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt's husband Heinrich Blücher. My father and Blücher were interned together at the beginning of the war, and that resulted in a deep friendship. But you make a point in your question: Hannah Arendt was not the most influential thinker for me at that time.

mmmmmHannah Arendt 1941. Foto: Fred Stein
When did you meet Hannah Arendt?

When she held a laudatio for Karl Jaspers in 1958, when he received the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels. My father had just died and she visited my mother. The second time I saw her was at the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt. I was there with my school class – and she happened to be there too. 

When did you begin to get interested in Hannah Arendt's work?

In the 1970s, as the discussions about totalitarianism became more and more pressing. I was a leftist anti-communist and when I came to Germany in 1968, I was perplexed by the reluctance to compare communism with national socialism, which was rooted in German history. 

Did your referring to Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism" lead to conflicts with your colleagues?

There was conflict from the outset, because when I was expelled from France in 1968, I was absolutely certain that, despite my revolutionary convictions, I would prefer to live in West Germany than in the GDR. I saw in France and the GDR bourgeois societies – that's what we called them back then – that needed reform but not totalitarian systems. 

Hannah Arendt wrote to Daniel Cohn-Bendit in June, 1968 that "..your parents would be very pleased with you if they were alive now."